Are you prioritising the right work?

Participants in Zoomly’s ‘Plan & prioritise’ and ‘Handle pressure’ workshops often talk about a sense of overwhelm, due to being unclear about what’s really top priority. All their plates are spinning (well, most plates if people are honest), it seems simultaneously – and so are they. But what’s actually getting done?

Technology and our capacity to distract ourselves have to take some of the blame for this (how many times have you checked your smartphone so far today?) But I think tech isn’t the whole story: we’re often working to the wrong priorities. Why? And what can we do about it?

Beware ‘busyness’ not business

A sure sign that someone’s spinning in circles is when you ask them how they’re doing and they reply “Crazy busy!” “I was here until 10pm last night!” “Stressed out!” If you’ve ever been there you’ll know that this situation is unsustainable – but when we’re in the thick of it, seeing a way out seems impossible. Being busy isn’t the same as being productive.

Rushing around, doing bits of different jobs, may work in the short term for some, but chances are it’s not bringing in the business results. If this is you, what can you do about it? First of all, reflect on your priorities (things you must get done, no fail) and what you actually did yesterday. Did you get the right things done, or a ton of other stuff, or somewhere in between?

Tip: end each working day with a few minutes’ reflection on how much of your time was spent on the top priorities and the progress you’ve made. Notice what tasks (and distractions) were the focus of the rest of your time.


How do you know what’s really top priority? This should be clarified in conversation with your manager. And by that I don’t mean whingeing at them about your ever-growing ‘to do’ list. Prepare for the conversation in such a way that you can a) offer your thoughtful suggestions and b) seek their advice and input.

My advice to get prepared is to create some kind of visual, rather than having 101 tasks whizzing round in your head. Get everything out of your head and noted down, whether it’s on a piece of paper, a spreadsheet, or Post-It notes. With the latter two, you can arrange and rearrange tasks until you have what you think are the right priorities against which to get stuff done. Or on paper you can number them.

Tip: use some tools to help you identify priorities. You can try an urgent / important or ‘Eisenhower matrix’ – check out this video, or a decision matrix.

Discuss – and haggle if necessary

When you’ve figured out what you think your top priorities are, you can then discuss with you manager and check you both agree what’s most important, and what can wait. Don’t be surprised if their initial reaction is ‘All of it. Now.’ – they may be under pressure too (see 7 tips for managing your boss if you need more help on this). You can smile and say you’re keen to do a great job but you don’t yet have superpowers; more important is to show them the preparation you’ve done to get on track and get their input. Ask for their advice – do they have a shortcut?

Haggle if you have to, using ‘if… then…’ for example, “If you want the meeting report written and emailed right now, then that means that the draft presentation won’t be ready until tomorrow morning”. You then have options: your manager may get someone else to do the work, or agree to a deadline extension.

Tip: ask your manager how long they think the task should take, bearing in mind your experience of it. Monitor how long you’re really taking to get things done.

You may find this blog post useful: Time management tip: understand 3 kinds of time.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

Got a question? Drop Dawn a line on Twitter @ZoomlyKeepUp.

Image by iqoncept / Deposit Photos

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